I’ve noticed over the past few months, that the word “activist” has become a new pejorative buzzword. I’ve been trying to figure out the rhetorical appeal of the word. I’ve figured out the typically an “activist” is someone out of step within the current system. There are environmental activists, organic activists, alternative energy activists who seemingly have a common agenda to somehow destroy life as we know it. I couldn’t figure out why these activists are so dangerous to the status quo. For example, even though organic farms are less than 1% of Iowa farmland, non-activists have spent lots of money on TV and radio ads subtly and not-subtly casting aspersions on organic and sustainable farmers. It didn’t make any sense to me why they would devote so many resources to defending the status quo. Then I ran across this paragraph by Maine farmer Eliot Coleman (few conventional Iowa farmers would consider anybody in Maine a “real” farmer) and was struck by the statement from Jefferson.
But there is one other connection between the word “radical” and small farms that I need to mention. The small organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power. Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it. It is very difficult to control people who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates, and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces.
On Monday, I gave a presentation about our household’s efforts to reduce energy use and increase dependence on renewable sources. I was followed by a member of a biodiesel co-op, and finally by someone from Alliant Energy. This person applauded the energy conservation efforts, but not-so-subtly, again mentioned the word “Activists” advocating renewable energy when it is perfectly clear to him that alternative energy systems will never replace coal plants and are essentially a waste of money. I guess if you have a hammer (an electric utility) then your job is to generate and sell electricity at the lowest possible cost. If someone comes along with a socket set, you don’t really think the socket set will work for driving nails. For if everyone used a socket with an attachment to twist in screws instead of a hammer to nail things in, your hammers wouldn’t be as valuable.
But this got me thinking about larger questions and confluences in food, energy, and farming. I think it boils down to a difference in values. If an urban Sierra Club chapter fights to save a wetland from “development” or a lake from being polluted by farm chemicals, they are labeled “Activists.” If a group of guys with guns like Ducks Unlimited or Pheasants Forever purchase wetlands/native areas they are not labeled “Activists.” Is the answer as simple as arming Sierra Club members? Is saving something for someone else besides yourself all it takes to be labeled an activist?
I think that small farmers, renewable energy proponents, and anyone else engaged in a pursuit that is counter to the prevailing system need to consider a different tack. Our economic system is supposed to serve us – after all, we invented it. Instead, most of us are slaves to the system, not being served by the system. The reason is simple. The practice of or current economic system does not meet basic human needs. Self-sufficiency, taking care of your family and neighbors is one of the historical human needs. So when I’m told I’ve made a terrible economic decision in installing a renewable energy system, or not farming like my neighbors, I think about this. Economics and profit are the motivating factor for every major corporation. Humans, are not like that, however. We don’t make decisions based on solely economic reasons (and if we do, we end up being unhappy and unfulfilled).
What’s the financial return on having children? What’s the financial return on taking care of aging parents? What’s the return on buying a $10,000 fishing boat and gear? What’s the return on a BMW S series? What’s the financial return on farming to conserve soil if you are only alive for 80 years and the soil has 100 years of abusive farming practices left before the other half is gone? There’s something larger than economic return going on here. For too long, organic, sustainable, and energy “activists” have been using the traps of the current economic system to justify their actions. My suggestion – stop explaining the economic returns of your sustainable methods in financial terms. Talk about how “It’s just the right thing to do.” You’ll be assaulted with terms like “niche” “hobby,” or perhaps if you are really on the edge “crackpot.” Talk about how it’s the right thing to do. It feeds my spirit. It connects me to generations in the future. Talk about the satisfaction of pulling a crop or kilowatt out of your place like hunters talk about their exploits outfoxing wild animals.
Our story is much more interesting than a corporate anything. Commodity agriculture doesn’t have a story. Who wants to visit a modern hog farm? Who wants to work in a modern meatpacking plant? Heck, who wants to visit a corn/soybean farm except maybe for a couple weeks in the spring or fall? Contrast that to the small farmer who has a diversity of crops and animals, an ever-evolving network of plants and animals, with a fast two-step throughout the season. Tell your story – it’s much deeper and more connected to the human spirit than any slick corporate ad. We need you, we’ve fallen below Jefferson’s 20% threshold.